TRINITY IV – Dominus illuminatio mea
Introit: (Ps. 27) The Lord is my light, and my salvation, whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? When mine enemies pressed sore against me, they stumbled and fell. Ps. Though an host of men were laid against me: yet shall not my heart be afraid. Glory be … The Lord is my light …
Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord God: Ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves. For your shame ye shall have double; and for confusion they shall rejoice in their portion: therefore in their land they shall possess the double: everlasting joy shall be unto them. For I the Lord love judgement, I hate robbery for burnt offering; and I will direct their work in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels. For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.6-11)
Gradual: (Ps. 79) Be merciful, O Lord, unto our sins: wherefore do the heathen say: Where is now their God? V. Help us, O God of our salvation: and for the glory of thy Name, O Lord, deliver us.
Epistle: Brethren: I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body, in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.18-23)
Alleluia. O God, who art set in the throne and judgest right: be thou the refuge of the oppressed in time of trouble. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye. (St Luke 6.36-42)
“Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”
“Motes” and “beams” and “judging” and “suffering”: what do all these things have in common? Strange as it may seem, the answer is, “Mercy.” Today’s Collect and Lessons teach us that life in the Kingdom of God means living in mercy: we have received mercy from God, and we, in turn, are to show mercy in our lives, in our dealings with others. We need to pray continually for God’s mercy, so that we might persevere to the end, as we pray in the Collect: “Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” We may not always fully comprehend what that means.
Last week’s lessons were all about grace—that unmerited favour which God lavishes upon us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5.8) For the Pharisees, and unfortunately many in the Church today, St Paul’s words ought to read something more like, “Since we were already so righteous, Christ came to affirm us!” Self-righteous people cannot understand grace, and that is why Our Lord spent so much of His time with the “publicans and sinners”—those people who knew they were sinners in need of a Saviour. If we truly understand what grace means, knowing that we are recipients God’s unbounded grace should have a practical impact upon how we live, and how we treat other people. Since He has forgiven us so much, we can never be proud, unloving, or unforgiving towards others. Humility is the gateway into the Kingdom of God.
Neither do the proud understand mercy. Yet our Liturgies are full of pleas for God’s mercy, which seems confusing and even off-putting for some. “Why are you always begging for mercy? If you believe God has already saved you, why all the grovelling?” But that is to misunderstand the Judeo-Christian concept of divine mercy. The Hebrew word translated “mercy” is חֶסֶד (hesed). Hesed is not merely an emotion or feeling, but involves action on behalf of someone in need. Hesed describes a sense of love and loyalty that inspires merciful and compassionate behaviour toward another person. Thus in many modern versions of the Bible this word is translated “steadfast love.” To have or show hesed is to love as God loves. When the Lord’s Presence passed before Moses on Mount Sinai, He proclaimed His great hesed: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful [rahoum] and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness [hesed] and truth, keeping mercy [hesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty…” (Exodus 34.6-7) In his book The Bible Among the Myths, biblical scholar John Oswalt describes it this way:
The word hesed…[is] the descriptor par excellence of God in the Old Testament. The word speaks of a completely undeserved kindness and generosity done by a person who is in a position of power. This was the Israelites’ experience of God. He revealed himself to them when they were not looking for him, and he kept his covenant with them long after their persistent breaking of it had destroyed any reason for his continued keeping of it. … Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping. Instead he was faithful, true, upright, and generous—always.
The corresponding Greek word is ἔλεος (eleos), and is etymologically linked to the word ἔλαιον (elaion)—meaning [olive] oil (cf. Latin oleum). Oil was frequently used in the ancient world to soothe and heal wounds, as in the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (“[he] bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine.” [Lk 10.34]) Thus the word eleos/eleison carries the idea of
… God’s healing grace abundantly poured upon us in order that we may live according to his will, and receive an increase in power. A hand, wounded and festering, is unable to work, but a healed one can. By our own power, we can do nothing, but with the grace of God we can work miracles. … When we pray, “Have mercy on us,” … we are not merely asking God to save us from his wrath, to heal us, but we are also asking for his love. … The people never tire of calling for it, because they know that as sinners they have no right to it. (Kucharek, Byzantine-Slav Liturgy) [For full quotation, see below.]
For Christians, our entire Liturgy—our entire lives—should be one long “Kyrie, eleison,” exactly because God has shown us His mercy, and we trust in that divine mercy, that it will never fail. We acknowledge that “without [Him] nothing is strong, nothing is holy,” and not to recognise our continual need of His mercy would be pure hubris.
People often think that the Christian life is always going to be smooth sailing. All too often, however, we are confronted with suffering and calamity—the theological term is “theodicy.” We are generally at a loss to answer the world’s question: “How can a loving God allow suffering?” We are unsure, maybe even afraid, of the answer, so we ignore the subject altogether or try to gloss over it. But St Paul does not. In today’s Epistle he writes about “the sufferings of this present time,” the futility (“vanity”) under which creation is groaning with us, and the troubles and sufferings even of those of us “who have the first fruits of the Spirit;” yet none of this shakes his faith in the steadfast love and mercy of God.
When trials come, we should remember these words: “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which is to be revealed in us,” or as Lamentations 3.22-23 reminds us: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. [NRSV: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;] they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” The point is that misery and hardship are temporary, but are all a part of God’s mercy as He works all things together for our good, preparing us for “the things eternal.” Life may be difficult and sometimes painful, but they are a necessary part of our sanctification. These sufferings teach us to repent of who we were, to change who we are, and to rejoice in who we are becoming, as God transforms sinners into saints and makes us ready for His Kingdom. This is St Paul’s understanding of divine mercy (eleos or hesed). He saw, even in the miseries and hardships of this life, a gracious process of divine healing and salvation that will one day be perfected in the light of the mystery of God’s love and grace. So if St Paul, with all the trials and persecutions he endured, could remain confident in the mercy and steadfast love of God, then so can we. Paul had a calm assurance that God’s divine mercy is working all things together, and that even those situations that seem devastating at the time are not only consistent with God’s love but are, in fact, instances of God’s love at work. In His providence and wisdom, our gracious and merciful God leads us through the hard times of life so that He can teach us how to rely on Him—how to live in His grace and hesed.
This is St Paul’s teaching throughout his letters, including today’s Epistle lesson, but particularly his second to the Corinthians. Earthly suffering is only temporary. Not to wax too philosophical, but to put this into perspective: our present suffering will soon be part of history—just a memory—and is nothing in comparison with our future joy and glory in God’s presence. Indeed, our entire life is but a dot on the timeline of eternity, with a line running from that point, continuing on forever. When pictured this way, our present situation amounts to very little, no matter how bad it might seem right now. But from our finite human perspective, we cannot see the full picture. And God has only that little dot—our brief moment on earth—to prepare us for “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (II Cor 4.17) So is it any wonder that we must deal with so much in so short a time? As platitudinous as it may sound, our times of suffering are part of God’s plan of education. But how strenuously we resist learning His lessons! And so, He must patiently and mercifully teach them over and over again, until we learn them. The future will not erase the past, but it will take the character and the shape of that which is being built right now in our present trials, “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (4.18) God is using the present to mould and shape us, and to prepare us for the future. And all the futility we see and the apparent failure of God’s creation around us in the present is but the beginning of a journey toward deliverance from the bondage of corruption and into the glorious liberty of the children of God. The groans of Creation, together with the groans of the saints, will be transformed into the final and eternal song of triumph: “Salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”
God’s love manifests itself in mercy. And God’s mercy is to be our example, and the measure of our interactions with those around us, as Our Lord teaches us in the Gospel: “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured back to you.” Being critical, grudging, or judgemental is the exact opposite of being merciful. But even more significantly, when we take it upon ourselves to judge others, we are setting a standard that will apply to us just as much as to the person we are judging. Expecting perfection from someone else is to raise the standard for ourselves, as well—a standard to which we cannot measure up any more than they. In other words, God will make us our own judges and weigh us with our own weights. This is a sobering thought. A harsh and critical spirit on our part will undoubtedly come pouring back upon us in torrents. But in contrast, love will be poured back upon the loving, forgiveness upon the forgiving, and mercy upon the merciful. And when we allow God’s love and mercy to be our guide and to shine through us, His blessings, as well as the blessing of others, will return upon us in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” He then presents two parables to exemplify this principle in practical terms.
Hyperbole was commonly used in parables in order to illustrate a point, but these vignettes sound more like a Laurel and Hardy sketch than the sage words of a rabbi. Let us look at them in reverse order. A “mote” is a speck or small splinter, while the “beam” refers to a log or timber. The sheer ridiculousness of this illustration makes us laugh, but the exaggeration draws attention to the fact that we so grossly underestimate our own faults and sins, especially in comparison to those of others. Our Lord’s point is that we, who are so readily critical and unforgiving of other people, appear equally ridiculous, proving how oblivious we are to our own faults and our own need for forgiveness. In other words, He is telling us to put down that magnifying glass with which we so carefully and critically inspect other people’s lives, and to pick up a mirror and take a long hard and honest look at ourselves!
“Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” This image represents the spiritual blindness caused by sin and unbelief, a condition common to everyone. We all come into this world spiritually blind, neither seeing nor knowing the ways of God. St Paul says that, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Cor. 2.14) Our Lord’s image of the blind leading the blind is a picture of one who goes through life oblivious to the reality of God’s Kingdom, yet certain, in his pride and arrogance, that he can manage just fine on his own, even saying to others, “Come on, I’ll show you the way. Follow me!” We can be fairly certain that such a scenario will not end well. But if we believe that Our Lord is only talking about “the other guy,” then we need to have our own eyes checked. And that is His point. In this case, we need to put down the mirror, and don a pair of spectacles. Our sins shift our focus away from Christ and back upon ourselves, so that He is no longer the lens through Whom we see and find our way; and in following our own way or the ways of the world, without God’s “being our ruler and guide,” we will surely fall into the pit of destruction. Through our faith in Him, Christ has opened our eyes and given us clear sight, enabling us to see His glory, and follow Him in the way that leads to eternal life, striving to be like Him, just as a student or disciple, when he is “fully trained, shall be like his teacher.”
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Forgive and ye shall be forgiven. Give and it shall be given unto you. The measure you give will be the measure you get.” As fallen human beings, our natural inclination is to judge and condemn, but this, in fact, actually condemns us to a world without hesed—without love, compassion, and mercy. Mercy gives and forgives. This kind of generosity of heart and life can only be ours if we have ourselves first received mercy and forgiveness from God. Christ calls us to be merciful even as we have received mercy; to love as we have been loved by God. Generous, gracious, and grateful lives are rooted in His infinite hesed. As we receive and appreciate the infinite love, mercy, and generosity of God, we are transformed into the loving, merciful and generous people He created us to be. When we give up trying to find our own way, then we can be found by Christ and graciously led in His Way that leads to everlasting life. If we stop trusting in our own merits and righteousness, then God, in His mercy, will clothe us in Christ’s righteousness, and bring us to eternal joy. “O God, … increase and multiply upon us thy mercy.”
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God;
for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.”
Collect: O God, whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive: Receive our humble petitions; and though we be tied and bound with the chain of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.
Following is Kucharek’s beautiful treatment of divine mercy.
… “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David,” cried the woman of Canaan who sought the cure of her daughter (Matt. 15:22). “O Lord, thou son of David, have mercy on us,” pleaded the two blind men on the road from Jericho (Matt. 20:30). “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” called out the ten lepers as they stood afar off (Luke 17:13). Jesus heard their humble prayers and granted their petitions. “Lord, have mercy,” cry the people in the Divine Liturgy to the same Christ who walked the byways of Palestine nearly two thousand years ago.
The expression “have mercy” must be taken in its total scriptural sense. The Greek word ἐλέησον, used in the Gospels and early Liturgies, is popularly translated as “have mercy,” but this does not convey the whole meaning. Ἐλέησον has the same root form as ἐλαίον [sic.] (referring to olive oil or to the tree from which it comes). Homer uses the word ἐλαίον almost exclusively as anointing oil. Oil is poured out to soothe and heal, as in the parable of the good Samaritan. In the Old Testament, it is poured on the heads of kings and priests as the image of God’s grace which comes down and flows on them (Ps. 133:2), empowering them to transcend mere human capability.
The original idea is contained in the olive tree of Genesis (8:6-21). Of the several birds sent out by Noah to find dry land, only the gentle dove returns with an olive twig. This is a sign from God that his wrath is ended, that he is giving man another chance. The olive tree and its oil indicate primarily the end of God’s wrath, an offering of peace to sinners who have turned against him. It speaks, moreover, of God’s healing grace abundantly poured upon us in order that we may live according to his will, and receive an increase in power. A hand, wounded and festering, is unable to work, but a healed one can. By our own power, we can do nothing, but with the grace of God we can work miracles.
The Slavonic milost and pomyluj go back to the Greek ἐλέησον in that they, too, express the end of God’s wrath toward us and the healing oil of his grace, but they bring out especially his loving-kindness. Their root-form expresses endearing tenderness; hence, when we pray, “Have mercy on us” (pomyluj), we are not merely asking God to save us from his wrath, to heal us, but we are also asking for his love. Knowing the power of perseverance in prayer, the faithful reiterate this cry fifty-nine times during the Divine Liturgy (excluding the rite of preparation). The cry is sent up to God after each petition, because in hearing and granting each petition, God will show his mercy-love toward his people. The people never tire of calling for it, because they know that as sinners they have no right to it. But God will hear the mournful cry of his people and will show them his mercy, for “not by the works of justice which we have done, but according to his mercy” (Tit. 3:5) does he save us. The people of God know that his “mercy exalteth itself above judgment” (James 2:13).
(Kucharek, Casimir, The Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, pp. 358-9)